The ugly truth feminists don't like to face
Published 26/07/2015 | 02:30
It's a taboo topic, but Polly Phillips says her daughter's looks will take her further in life than her brain will - in the judgemental world we live in, it's better to be beautiful
As I read my daughter one of her favourite bedtime stories, I should be concentrating on the way her tentative toddler tongue sounds out the words. Instead, I'm distracted by her porcelain skin, thick lashes and golden curls. For while I hope her love of reading continues, and her language skills develop ahead of the curve, I can't help feeling that even in the 21st Century, after decades of supposed progress, growing from a sweet-looking baby to a stunning-looking adult will serve her far better than being top of her class. A taboo it might be, but the tragic reality is her looks could still get her much further than her brain.
I understand this admission flies in the face of the fight feminists have long waged for women to be worth more than their looks. As a feminist myself, I desperately wish that as we continue to hammer on the glass ceiling, how we look while doing so didn't still play a part in determining our success. Yet survey after survey indicates that women often allow how good they look to define them.
A recent poll by Lloyds Pharmacy found nearly one-third are scared to go into the office when they feel unattractive, with 42pc of respondents admitting their self-esteem was directly linked to their appearance. That's why I want my daughter to be so stunning she will sail through life unbowed by such issues.
For a start, it may help her navigate the turbulent teenage waters, and the personal attacks that adolescent girls make on one another, far more easily than I did. As a child who wasn't beautiful, I was often a target and lacked the confidence to laugh off cruel comments. I hope beauty will shield my daughter.
More significantly, if she grows into an attractive adult, she will have more chance of success: research shows that good-looking people get better jobs and are paid more.
As a university education grows ever more expensive and the volume of graduates decreases the value of a degree, even the academic elite are questioning the worth of study. David Palfreyman, bursar of New College, Oxford in the UK, was the latest to speak out when, at a seminar jointly organised by the Higher Education Policy Institute and the Higher Education Academy, he questioned how much graduates would actually benefit from a non-vocational degree.
Meanwhile, those who are more physically blessed are sitting pretty. What research from the University of Essex deemed a "beauty premium" applies across both genders, with a Harvard Business School study finding last year that investors were more likely to put money into ventures if the man making the pitch was handsome.
This beauty bias begins early, with anecdotal evidence suggesting that nurses gravitate towards sweeter-looking babies on the maternity ward and a study by the University of Texas even finding that the cuter a baby looked, the more attention it received from its mother. Which only redoubles my desire for my daughter to grow up with looks that "stand out from the crowd", to borrow a phrase used in a University of Illinois study that found that better-looking high school students got into better universities.
As a society, we've only got ourselves to blame: we drum the importance of aesthetics into our children from day one. We praise babies and small children for being "cute", "beautiful" or "gorgeous". While this focus on the physical seems to fall away as boys grow older, it's still the currency we deal in when it comes to girls. Adults and children alike can't seem to help themselves commenting on the hair, eyes, skin, height and weight of young girls in a way they just wouldn't with boys.
I tell my daughter she is beautiful every day. But I also tell her that she's funny and strong and clever and kind. But I tell her that she's pretty most of all, because I want her to feel that way, and be imbued with the confidence that beauty brings. Hopefully then, as her looks change and inevitably fade with age, the confidence she's gained from them will not.
Because while the way that we look might be the first thing we praise, it's also the first thing we attack. Negative judgments about opinions or character traits can be dismissed as subjective, but there's scant comfort when it comes to a slur about the way that you look. If my daughter is beautiful she may be spared such smears, as I have not.
One could argue it's simply the positive reinforcement that attractive people are given that boosts their confidence, which in turn makes them even more attractive and drives them on to greater success. And maybe that's what I should really be hoping my daughter holds on to as she grows up - the confidence that her toddler years have been endowed with, not the beauty. But in today's celebrity-obsessed society, confidence and beauty are so tightly bound it can be impossible to separate the two.
This isn't about me thinking that my daughter is gorgeous - at least, no more than any other mother does - or that she is in some way better than other children. It's simply about me, like every mother, wanting the best for her. And in the judgemental world we live in, it's best to be beautiful.
In an ideal world, she'd be beautiful and brainy. But then in an ideal world appearances wouldn't matter.